Friday, April 2, 2010

Off the clock

It is a truth universally recognized that a thick novel, filled with arcane information about whales, will put off potential readers, Nevertheless, Herman Melville’s epic novel, Moby-Dick, by no means a brisk seller at the time of its publication, has found its way to most of the informed lists of Most Magisterial American Novels.

Many last-comers, myself included, have not only found it penetrable, they have—because of its vast ensemble cast of memorable characters, the things these individuals say to one another, and the things they do—found Moby-Dick to be a rewarding, even transformative experience. Others still find the metaphor, symbolism, and validation in the epic struggle between Man and the forces of Nature, as represented by the great white whale.

Given the pressures and distractions of contemporary life, any 600-page novel is bound to seem daunting, even when it comes with a pedigree. We still approach such a work with suspicion, metaphorically kicking the tires as many of us find ourselves drawn into a world every bit as foreign—but no less fascinating or symbolic—as Moby-Dick.

The locale of which I write now is Dempsey, a fictional high-rise public housing project in northern New Jersey, close on to Jersey City and, of course, through the Holland Tunnel to New York.

As Ishmael, the protagonist of Moby-Dick tells us early in the first page, when he finds himself moody and depressed, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.” Ronald Dunham, a 19-year-old black man with a raging, undiagnosed stomach ulcer, recently of the Dempsey projects, and Rocco Klein, a 40-ish homicide detective who is looking desperately ahead to an early retirement, have no such ready escape valves as does Ishmael. They are both caught in the web of life, its expectations and potentials, in and about Dempsey. They are also the dual protagonists of Richard Price’s muscular, insightful 1992 novel, Clockers.

Ronald Dunham, known throughout as Strike, is a street lieutenant for a Falstaffian drug dealer named Rodney, who in his turn reports to Champ. From his own observations, Strike has calculated the working life of someone in his position is about six months before a deadly combination of violence and the colliding world of overlapping law-enforcement agencies converge on him. As Rodney is quick to point out to Strike, poor, uneducated blacks have two choices, crime or being on the street, “hustlin’. It ain’t criminal, man, it just survival. But you clean, strong young man, and if you play your cards right, someday you be working on the inside…” Rodney’s message is to save enough to buy one’s way out of the street and the hustle, which also means not using the product one sells.

Strike “had driven aimlessly through the deserted streets of downtown Dempsey for a while before deciding to make the rounds of his safes. He didn’t need to visit his money—he knew within a hundred dollars how much he had stashed across town—but he wanted to reassure himself that he had the means if not the resolve to make a new life for himself….Seven thousand here, fifteen thousand in the other two safes, equals a lot of miles and a lot of time away from all this business.”

Strike has, in effect, another role model, his older brother, Victor, who is desperately working three low-pay jobs to support himself, his girlfriend, and their infant son. Caught between these two polar extremes, Strike makes in excess of $2000 a week. Rodney is pressuring Strike to move off the streets and “indoors,” a step upward in a managerial sense. Rodney has also revealed to Strike that the one thing apparently blocking his progress is another young man whom Rodney suspects of cheating him and stealing from him.

When Rodney solicitously asks Strike if he has a gun, Strike begins to understand the “politics” of advancement. For a long time, it becomes difficult to separate his own anguish from Macbeth’s prior to concluding that he should kill King Malcolm.

When the other lieutenant Rodney suspects of double-dealing is found dead, assassination style, and Strike’s brother, Victor, confesses to the shooting, Strike’s ulcer goes on a rampage. Only vanilla Yoo-Hoo will afford him any comfort.

Homicide detective Rocco Klein becomes morally convinced Victor was not the shooter, his own role in the expanding complexion undergoing achingly similar angst to Strike.

As the complexity and anguish of moral choice grate against Strike and Klein, involving each in wrenching, humorous situations in which each shows remarkable resilience in the face of humiliation, the comparison to the characters and their plights in Moby-Dick emerge. Strike and Klein are each involved in a gritty, dark existential trap from which we learn details from their working lives as we learned details from the crew of Capt. Ahab’s ship, The Pequod. We learn, for instance, that a homicide cop should either wear a tie clip or tiepin to a crime scene, lest his tie get soiled when he bends to examine the corpse. We learn how cocaine is stepped on or diluted (and with what) in order to make it bring in more money. We learn an uneasy connection between drug dealers, their sales reps, and multi-level merchandising programs. We learn the mysteries of haircut designs, and without being made elbow-nudge aware of it, we are a privy to an authentic street language of the cop, the seller, and the user.

Readers of Clockers familiar with the past HBO series, The Wire, will recognize characters, situations, and instances, undoubtedly helping explain why Price was hired on as a staff writer for The Wire.

Clockers is not easy going because of the life styles and circumstances it unearths. It may take a bottle or two of Yoo-Hoo to provide a protective coating. The unresolved aspect of the frequent comparison of it to Moby-Dick opens the door for a range of thought. There is little doubt that the lifestyles in each novel are authentic, slices of the pie of humanity. The characters in each are memorable men and women, trying their best to eke out a meaningful and satisfying life. There are notable failures in each narrative and notable successes. There are notable examinations of ethical behavior, morality, and surprise in each.

Clockers is surely a rich, thorough investigation of social strata, of deeds and consequences, where such concepts as heroes, villains, and even role models fall away and the human condition remains.

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